Who are our politicians – and who are the ones that we really want?

Reflexions after the WEF

by Karl-Jürgen Müller

Since there have been states, i.e. political communities with constitutive state power, a state territory and a constitutive people, there have been questions about the quality requirements in personalities who execute political offices in responsible positions.


More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle outlined six different forms of state rule in his work “Politic”, three of which he rather approved of and three of which he judged rather negatively. He considered the autocracy, i.e. the rule by one person, for instance by a monarch, a positive form as well the rule of a few noblemen in the aristocracy, but also the rule of all citizens in the “politie”, since in all of these the common weal was in the centre of power exercise. However, he considered these three forms of stately rule as negative, if they “degenerated” to become the rule by one person in the “tyrannis”, the rule by only a few in the oligarchy and the rule by all in the ochlocracy, for in these three forms of power exercise self interest prevailed.

Niccolò Machiavelli

At the beginning of the 16th century the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a book, entitled “Il Principe” (“The Prince”). The contents of this book are often reduced, by those who comment on it, to Machiavelli’s demand that in politics the end justifies the means. This statement falls short. Machiavelli’s initial question was: “How could one be successful in a hostile environment, i.e. attain the power, retain it and augment it to magnitude?” The background to this question was Italy’s disastrous situation at the time, whose city-states were permanently threatened from outside and inside. Later Machiavelli confessed to the Republic, however, when he wrote his book “Il Principe” he was very much impressed by the political “achievements” of Cesare Borgia and saw the solution of Italy’s problems in a “strong leader”.

In the twentieth century Carlo Schmidt, the German politician of the SPD (Social Democratic Party), summarised the work of Machiavelli as follows: “Those who think that Machiavelli holds the opinion that politics could only be exercised with poison and dagger, lies and crimes, are wrong and have gravely misunderstood him. Where it works without these things they must not be used at all, not for moral reasons but because it would be apolitical to employ them. However, in the case of to be or not to be, when the nature of the power struggle in a given situation make poison and dagger, lies and crimes indispensible, in order to overcome the enemy, then the only time a statesman is in the right place, if he can bring himself to use these means, be he a nihilistic cynic or be he someone who sacrifices his soul for the state. That is the meaning of Machiavelli’s words, that a statesman must also be able to act viciously.

Max Weber

Shortly after World War I and at the start of the Weimar Republic the German sociologist Max Weber wrote a paper entitled “Politics as Profession”. Therein Weber distinguished three forms of rule in a state: traditional rule (for instance by a chief of a tribal system), charismatic rule (for instance by a demagogue; whom we would call a populist, today) and the bureaucratic rule based on legally authorised institutions (constitution and law) in modern society. For his own time he characterised the breakthrough of this bureaucratic rule as follows: In this form of rule, politicians would have to stand out by passion for a cause, sense of responsibility and sense of distance and proportion. Vanity was the gravest weakness of politicians, Max Weber said. And where are we today, one hundred years later?

Object lesson WEF

This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos provided an object lesson as an answer to this question. Three politically important figures who hit the headlines, are chosen as examples: the inspirer of “Fridays for Future” Greta Thunberg, EU-Commission  President Ursula von der Leyen and US-American President Donald Trump. They all delivered opening addresses at the WEF. Ursula von der Leyen spoke even twice.

Focus on “Climate Change”

Climate policies were in focus of this year’s WEF and its fiftieth anniversary.  Before the event WEF-founder Klaus Schwab had appealed to corporations and governments to take definite steps to make their countries “climate-neutral” until the year 2050. WEF itself was to launch an initiative that foresaw to plant one trillion trees in the course of the years to come. He did not want to have Greta instrumentalise him, he said in an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 20 January 2020, however, Greta Thunberg “was an impressive young woman”. The WEF itself was “one of the sustainable conferences”, he said: “We do not have any influence on the participating members’ choice of travelling by private aeroplanes, however, we will compensate all CO2 emissions”. Unfortunately Klaus Schwab was not questioned what these compensations would look like practically.

Greta Thunberg

17-year-old Greta Thunberg was one of the Davos headliners. In case you enter the terms “Thunberg”, ”WEF” and “Davos” into Google-News, you will get 4,280,000 entries (21 January 2020). What did Greta Thunberg say in Davos? We read: ”In her speech at the Davos WEF Greta Thunberg severely criticised her audience, composed of top-class representatives of politics and economies in extremely hard terms. The measures taken to date against the climate change were by no means target-aimed, she said. Moreover she again showed herself aghast at the attitude of leading politicians towards global warming. The findings in this context were such that everybody should panic, Greta claimed. The world’s leaders, however, were not interested at all.  She then alleged collective failure of all the top-politicians: “Left, right, centre – all of them failed”, she criticised them. The same report1 goes on as follows: “And in particular US President Donald Trump received a punch for the current situation. In his speech Trump had claimed that it would take optimism in environmental issues. She accused the 73-year-old politician of inaction”. Really “impressive”?

Ursula von der Leyen

Trailing behind among the headliners was Ursula von der Leyen, who, even after her second speech reached only 74,000 entries in Google News answering to the key words “von der Leyen”, “WEF” and “Davos” (23 January 2020). Apart from some adulations, news seem to have spread that the EU Commission President had spoken of a “Green Deal” and promised “climate neutrality” until 2050 too boastfully. Her announcement that in the next ten years the EU was going to supply one, respectively three trillion euro turned out to be nothing but a great bluff, so that even the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” which usually favoured von der Leyen judged: “Green Deal: Empty promise”. We read on: “A yearly 100 trillion for climate protection? Only 7,5 trillion are new. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has sold the public much more climate protection than she is able to supply.” Obviously the EU Commission President had intended to showcase successes all too soon. However, the paper presented on 14 January 2020 by the EU Commission containing precise figures convinced only a very few. Critical statements with respect to the radical structural transformation that are connected with van der Leyen’s plans have very much increased in the past weeks, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung speaks of a “structural transformation beyond all comparison”.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump was the bogeyman in Davos, as always. Despite of that, everybody wanted to meet him. In his speech Trump was not sparing with praise about the success of his policies, in particular of the economic boom in the USA. Referring to climate policies he mentioned the excellent air in the USA as well as the opportunities provided by technical innovations and asked for more optimism. We also read: Donald Trump criticised environmental activists like Greta Thunberg in Davos. Trump said in his opening address in the Swiss ski resort Davos: “We must reject the perpetual prophets of doom and their prophesies of the apocalypse”.2 That was not what the representatives of the climate catastrophe theories would have liked to hear. However, if you enter “Trump”, “WEF” and “Davos” into Google-News you get 19,400,400 entries (21 January 2020), five times as many as Greta Thunberg.

Images of politicians
conveyed by the media …

How must we classify these significant personalities according to the above mentioned theories of politicians?  Thinking about this question is worthwhile. However, neither Aristotle nor Niccolò Machiavelli nor Max Weber knew to what extent media today do form and convey images of politicians and to what extent media do instrumentalise politics. How much do we really learn about the factual objectives, actions and consequences of their politics? There is an ever growing gulf between “presentation” and reality. Propaganda dominates!

… and a lack of ethics in politics

Greta Thunberg, Ursula von der Leyen as well as Donald Trump are staging themselves. This is the core of today’s politics and promotes vanity. Credibility and confidence suffer. There is a proposed solution to the problem: not to concentrate on politicians but to live more direct democracy – this may be a very important ingredient of freedom and democracy. “Have the courage to use your own reason”. – Immanuel Kant’s categorial imperative is no less important today than it was more than 200 years ago. However, in political offices it takes a new political culture and a return to political ethics. Machiavelli cannot provide a solution, even if our times resemble Machiavelli’s Italy in many aspects. However, Aristotle’s reference at the politician’s orientation towards the common weal and also Weber’s reference at the politician’s passion for a cause, sense of responsibility and sense of distance and proportion are useful starting points even today.  •



“Triumph of the show“

“The WEF has always been the show‘s triumph over substance. […] Whereas in the past it was enough to earn money, today a social and ecological added value is demanded. Anyone confronted with the contradictory demands of the hypocritical Western societies will probably not be able to avoid covering up his own weaknesses with publicity. The WEF is the ideal stage for this; everyone is allowed to recite his monologue here. The ultimate principle is perfect self-expression [...].”

Editorial of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 25 January 2020

(Translation Current Concerns)

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